Mussolini's Fascism: St Hugh's College, Oxford, in Association with History Review: Julia Wood Prize Thomas Meakin Asks to What Extent Italian Fascism Represented a Triumph of Style over Substance

Article excerpt

This year there were 121 entries, some of a very high order. Exceptionally, the Committee decided to make two awards to candidates who are both in the Lower Sixth. The winner is Thomas Meakin of the Perse School, Cambridge, a version of whose essay is published below. A second award was made to Hannah Boston of Loughborough High School, for her exceptionally enterprising edition of, and commentary on, a thirteenth-century cyrograph from the Leicestershire Records Office.

The murder of Benito Mussolini on 28 April 1945 marked the end of Italian Fascism's 26-year regime. II Duce had been elevated to heights of popularity unparalleled since the days of the Risorgimento and Giuseppe Garibaldi, yet the dictator's fate in the small village of Giulino di Mezzegra represented an ignominious demise for the Italian 'Sun God'.

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The success of the Fascist movement can be attributed to its fundamental ability to evolve in response to Italian popular opinion. Mussolini was adaptable in his continuation of the long-held practice of transformismo politics. However, he differed from his Liberal predecessors in his political focus. Italian politics was no longer solely restricted to the conservative elite and landed agrari, for the Fascist regime sought to consolidate its position through propaganda aimed at a mass audience. Hence Italian Fascism represented a series of facades, masking the political, economic, social, and military inadequacies that marked the dictatorship from its inception in 1919 and ultimately secured its end.

Coming to Power

Perhaps the foremost example of the reactionary tactics adopted by Mussolini and Italian Fascism can be seen in their transition across the political spectrum between March 1919 and October 1922. The lack of a definitive political ideology allowed the Fascist organisation to adapt to the continually altering Italian political climate that existed in the aftermath of World War I. The Fascio di Combattimento, or Combat Group, that was established in Milan did not represent a political party, but merely a movement of sporadic revolutionaries who were dissatisfied with the status quo. This burgeoning band of militants, whose main constituent body was composed of the recently demobilised Arditi, expressed radical social ideals and believed that they would occupy the extreme left wing of Italian politics. Mussolini's editorship of II Popolo d'ltalia enabled the radical-nationalist-socialist group to voice its opinion to a mass audience. However, in the elections of 1919 the Fascists performed dismally, gaining only two per cent of the vote in Milan, and Mussolini began to search for alternative means of gaining support and political influence.

Socialist uprisings and violence in September 1920 gave the Fascists an ideal opportunity to show their vitality and dynamism, and their attacks on socialist workers attracted conservative industrialists. In arguably the most important political shift of his career, Mussolini realised that power could only be achieved by appealing to the Italian fear of socialism. He adopted increasingly right-wing views, dropping both anti-clericalism and republicanism in September 1921, and began to isolate Fascism's minority of socialist members, whilst local leaders or Ras such as Italo Balbo, Roberto Farinacci and Dino Grandi established control within rural areas of northern and central Italy.

The expanding Fascist movement began to attract all sections of society, many of whom had been harmed by the militant socialist federterra or those whose economic prosperity had been curtailed due to impositions placed on them by Socialist councils. Fascist anti-socialism had genuinely created a popularist mass movement, transforming Mussolini's political prospects in the process. The ideological volte-face that was undertaken by the Fascist Party from 1919 represented willingness to sacrifice, and indeed an absence of, core values and beliefs in an effort to gain power. …